Elizabeth Edwards' Internet

While the campaigns are miles ahead of where they were four years ago, none of them understand the Net as deeply as Elizabeth Edwards does.
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It is hard to read Saving Graces and not fall in love with Elizabeth Edwards.

In it, Edwards tells how in the deeply dark times in her life, including the death of a son and a battle with breast cancer, she found "solace and strength from friends and strangers," as the subtitle puts it. Through her story, told without affectation, her virtues emerge. Among them -- lesser, certainly, than her compassion, bravery and hopefulness -- is her implicit understanding of the Internet.

She "gets" the Internet better than any of the candidates, probably including her husband. While the campaigns are miles ahead of where they were four years ago -- the default has flipped from thinking it'd be nuts to have a blog to it'd be nuts not to have a blog, and then you better let your supporters blog on your site, too -- none of them understand the Net as deeply as Elizabeth Edwards does.

The Internet manifests itself in campaigns in two basic forms: As a campaign tool and as a campaign issue. As a tool, the candidates are figuring out the Net isn't just a cheaper way to send out campaign literature and requests for donations. It's not even just a way to coordinate the million moving parts of the campaign machine. If that's all the Internet were, then (as my kin say) "Dayenu!" But, some of the campaigns have learned the right lesson from the star-crossed (or what it right-crossed?) Dean campaign: If you love your supporters, set them free. Don't assume you're the center of their universe. Let them find one another, and get out of their way.

If as a tool the Internet is useful, as an issue, it appears as all risk and little benefit. If a candidate sticks with the generalities -- "America is 11th ... no, wait, 15th ... no, this just in, 19th in broadband access globally, and that is just not acceptable" -- she or he is repeating exactly what every candidate has said. If, on the other hand, the campaign talks about implementation details, it will alienate half the people who were nodding enthusiastically when the candidate was mouthing the generalities. So, campaigns issue high- falutin policy statements about the Internet being essential to the economy, innovation, education, national security, and democracy. Give fetal monitors an IP address and the candidates will finally meet the rhetorical imperative to claim that the Internet is essential to motherhood.

But the Internet doesn't show up in Elizabeth Edwards' book as a campaign tool or as an issue. It doesn't show up as a telecommunications medium, as a key economic enabler, or as a series of tubes. It doesn't even show up as an innovation. In Saving Graces, the Internet is a key that unlocks something old and primitive: The connection among us that makes us more than we are.

Edwards makes it clear in the book that she has been a people person from the gitgo. Following her father, a military man, from base to base, she learned how to make friends quickly and easily, taking every opportunity to start a conversation. She is the type of person who talks to the person behind her on line at the grocery, which I believe in the Northeast has the status of a rarely- prosecuted misdemeanor.

So, during times that could have crushed her -- that would have beaten most of us down -- she found strength in and with others, many on the Internet. That is how the Net shows itself in Elizabeth Edwards' story: A connection among people who would otherwise never have met, talking about what matters most.

As campaigns and governments devise their policies, they would do well to think of the Internet as it manifests itself in Elizabeth Edwards' story. Not a series of tubes. Not an information highway. But our connectedness, from which, as always, all else flows.

(Disclosure: I am doing a little volunteer consulting to the Edwards campaign on Net policy. I've never met Elizabeth or John.)

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